Sometimes, nothing is better than something.

If I merely say “orange peel” or “warm cinnamon bun” or “rose,” you’ll smell them, if you close
your eyes and pretend, even though what the words say aren’t there. In a way, a phantom orange peel smells stronger than a real one because, if you think about it, nothing’s physically present.

Such is the power of smell or, more properly said, such is the power of the memory to smell. It’s like that for all of us, with smells and tastes, and perhaps most strongly with our first smells and tastes of certain things. It is that way, I think, because we are able to make our pasts present again.

I know that I never again will taste that sweet butter I had for breakfast 40 years ago at a small café near a small railway station in a small town in western France.

You know the taste of warm heavy cream? Or the way melting fat feels on your lips? Or how butter is prettier not stained yellow, but in its natural color, the hue of dry hay? That’s how it was.

I’ve tried to find that butter again, but all the tastes of all the butters that I’ve savored in 40 years aren’t that butter’s taste. I don’t know why.

In any case, I have that butter’s taste, anyway, every time I want it, just as real and delicious as it
was that crisp fall morning. I simply remember it and bring it back.

Alternately, it may be better not to have what one wants than to have it.

I do not eat most restaurant tomatoes anymore, not unless it’s late July or August and the kitchen has taken them off a vine — but how often does that happen, even in late July or August?

Asparagus is best in the spring, my spring, not Chile’s or Mexico’s spring.

It tastes better not to eat something when it isn’t the thing’s time than to eat it all year ’round, when it comes courtesy of shipping companies and frequent flyer miles.

That’s why a true tomato, and true asparagus, and so many other foods tied to their seasons, taste better when we’ve waited for them. They taste better because, for a few months, they were absent from our plates, because they weren’t there to be tasted.

And what about the opposite of nothing, a lot of something?

I once stared down at a 500-gram tin of Sevruga caviar — I adore caviar, I crave caviar — of which I was told that I could eat as much as I wanted.